‘The Danish Girl’ sheds light on the transsexual world

Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander in "The Danish Girl." — Photo Courtesy of Focus Features

The transsexual world comes to the big screen in “The Danish Girl,” now playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center in Vineyard Haven. Set in Copenhagen in 1926, the film tells the story of Einar Wegender/Lili Elbe, played by Eddie Redmayne. Last week, the actor won an Oscar nomination for the role.

One of the first men to undergo surgical gender reassignment, Wegender became Lili over time. Director Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar in 2010 for “The King’s Speech” and also helmed “Les Misérables,” opens “The Danish Girl” with beautiful scenes of the Danish landscape. The film’s gorgeous costumes rival those of “Downton Abbey.” The film’s awkward title references Einar’s wife Gerda, played by Alicia Vikander, recently in “Ex Machina” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

The viewer meets Einar and Gerda, both of whom are painters, as they lustily illustrate the physical component of their happy marriage. That condition changes when Gerda, whose ballerina model is late, convinces her husband to don silk stockings and the dancer’s slippers, temporarily serving as model. Reluctant at first, Einar finds he enjoys dressing as a woman. Soon he attends an artist’s ball in drag, complete with wig and a dress, and finds himself pursued by Henrik (Ben Whishaw).

Like Benedict Cumberbatch, Redmayne comes from the tour-de-force school of acting instead of seeking subtlety. He immerses himself powerfully in the role, as he did in 2014, when he won an Oscar for his portrayal Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Director Hooper relies heavily on close-ups of Redmayne’s face, with its every twitch and quiver, as the actor gradually transforms himself into a woman. A visit to a peep show helps Einar learn feminine gestures, movements, even tilts of the head, becoming a man in drag in the first stage of his transformation into a woman. He revels in a brief interlude as a department store worker.

The trans world has criticized the film, in particular for using a cis-gender (the opposite of trans) actor like Redmayne. And “The Danish Girl” depicts gender primarily as performance, consisting of sexual identity’s surface components. Gender study researchers who have long rejected a bipolar definition of gender argue instead that it consists of a continuum of identities from male to female.

Nevertheless, “The Danish Girl’s” account of a transgender pioneer takes an important step toward opening up a public discussion of the subject. But it presents it through a somewhat purified, at times sentimental, view of the past. The director uses multiple scenes of urban and bucolic Denmark, perhaps to counter the starker elements of what Einar/Lili went through. Shot after shot of handsome building facades help reinforce the notion of transgender as performance.

A troupe of fine actors supports Redmayne. Vikander in particular brings nuance to her role as Einar’s wife, then friend of Lili. Matthew Schoenaerts, as Einar’s childhood friend Hans, enriches Einar/Lili’s and Gerda’s world. Although his role as Henrik, Lili’s would-be lover, is underdeveloped, Ben Whishaw is another valuable presence. “The Danish Girl” stumbles most in its saccharine ending, but it remains an excellent and important, if sanitized, exploration of the transgender world.

For screening times and tickets, visit mvfilmsociety.com, or go to MVTimes event listings.